[Viewpoint] A test for Moon’s leadership

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[Viewpoint] A test for Moon’s leadership

“It was destiny,” Moon Jae-in said of his relationship with President Roh Moo-hyun. And he titled his book, detailing his relationship with Roh, “Moon Jae-in’s Destiny.”

Destiny is an odd word. When we talk about a man in the context of destiny the path of his life becomes unique. Suddenly he has vocation, motivation and conviction. But if a man becomes too conscious about his destiny he can become mired in the past.

Moon’s image is founded on his relationship with Roh. In the Roh government, he served as the chief of staff and civil affairs senior secretary at the Blue House. His rivals in the presidential primary pointed that out as his weakness. They said Moon couldn’t escape Roh’s shadow.

Moon, standing adviser of the main opposition Democratic United Party, refuted them. “The president makes the final decision, but his chief of staff handles a wider range of affairs,” Moon argued.

There is another aspect to his destiny to be considered. It is about his birth, and it will become an important issue in his run for president. Moon was born in 1952 when his parents were taking refuge on Geoje Island in the South Sea. His parents hail from Hungnam, South Hamgyong Province of North Korea.

Months after the 1950-53 Korean War broke out, the United Nations forces managed to breach the 38th parallel in October. They managed to advance to the Tumen River. But the situation quickly reversed as China intervened.

The U.S. troops lost the infamous Battle of Chosin Reservoir. American and Korean troops were forced to retreat to the Hungnam Harbor on the east coast. The evacuation began in December.

About 100,000 North Korean refugees rushed to the harbor, among them Moon’s father. Moon’s parents were taken to Geoje Island in the South. Moon’s father served as the agricultural section manager of Hungnam city government during the brief occupation of the UN troops of the harbor city.

His father’s escape from the North is dramatic. How did it affect Moon’s historical view? How did it shape Moon’s views on war and peace, confrontation and reconciliation of the two Koreas and ideological conflicts?

There is a topic that Moon is destined to address, something that he must talk about as a presidential candidate. It is about the controversy over the statue of General Kim Baek-il.

In front of the POW Camp Park on the island, a Hungnam Evacuation Memorial is located. The general’s statue was erected next to it in May last year. Kim was the highest commander of the Korean troops during the evacuation operation.

At the time, the U.S. forces were reluctant to implement a large-scale evacuation, and there were not enough vessels that could be used for the operation. There was also a concern that spies from the North Korean military would pose as refugees.

General Kim made an appeal. “The Korean troops will walk to retreat. Please allow the civilians to board the vessels for evacuation,” he told the American troops.

The U.S. military, then, made a humanitarian decision.

The statute of General Kim was to commemorate the contribution, but it immediately became controversial. Activists covered the statute with a black cover and put steel chains around it. They labeled General Kim as “pro-Japanese” for having a military career during the Japanese colonization period.

The activists claimed that he oppressed Korean independence fighters while he was serving the Gando Special Force of the Manchurian Army, citing the “Dictionary of Collaborators.”

The Korean Veterans Association then rejected their argument. “This is an insult to Korean War hero General Kim,” it said. “The ‘Dictionary of Collaborators’ was created during the Roh administration and is a conspiracy of the leftists to disgrace South Korea and the Korean military.”

Lee Gyeong-pil, the 62-year-old head of the Jangseungpo Veterinary Hospital, also raised his voice to refute the activists. Nicknamed “Kimchi Five,” Lee is a part of the emotional drama of the Hungnam evacuation.

The SS Meredith Victory was a U.S. cargo freighter designed to carry no more than 1,500 people. The ship’s American Captain Leonard LaRue, however, decided to carry 14,000 refugees, including pregnant women.

During the ship’s three days at sea - which became the largest humanitarian rescue operation by a single ship in human history - five babies were born. The captain named them Kimchi One to Five. It was a joy amidst the excruciating pain of the wartime. And Lee is Kimchi Five.

During a recent phone conversation with Lee, he addressed the issue about the protest against the statue. “If General Kim’s service in the Manchurian Army was a demerit, he earned a hundred more merits to make up for it,” Lee said. “If it had not been for General Kim, I would have not been born, and the same goes for Moon.”

The controversy surrounding pro-Japanese acts is a sensitive issue that will linger in our society. North Korea has been defeated in industrialization and democratization contests with the South. The last weapon for the pro-Pyongyang leftists is the offensive against pro-Japanese collaborators.

Moon is a veteran from the Special Warfare Command and that is a strength that he can promote. But that does not necessarily guarantee balanced historical views.

The controversy over General Kim’s statute is currently ongoing, and the debate over it contains the issues of a national identity and history as well as conflicts over ideology and pro-Japanese collaborators.

Most civic groups demanding the removal of the statue are composed of Roh loyalists. And this issue became a test for Moon’s leadership. It is an issue that will reveal his historical view and inner value system. It is also an opportunity for him to strengthen his competitiveness.

Moon must speak about the issue. It is his destiny.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Park Bo-gyoon
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